New primary date change hits a wall in the Senate

The Senate resoundingly defeated a proposal from the Secretary of State’s Office that would have advanced the primary election date by three weeks.

The vote, 29-0, was something of an embarrassment for Jim Condos, the Secretary of State, who advocated for the change last week. Condos said he wasn’t aware of the abrupt about-face until after the fact. “It’s not my defeat; it’s the citizens of Vermont’s defeat,” he said.

Even the members of the committee who incorporated Condos’ proposal in the miscellaneous elections bill, S.86, which would have moved up the primary to early August, voted against the measure.

“It’s their prerogative,” Condos said. “They’re the ones who make the policy. I can only make recommendations. The Department of Justice strongly recommended that we move it, and we tried.”

Condos says he will take his case to the House if he can’t change the date before third reading in the Senate.

Last fall, the Secretary of State’s Office had just three days to prepare ballots for Vermonters who are serving in the military or live overseas. The short time frame was the result of a contested recount of write-in ballots for two candidates — Martha Abbott and Annette Smith — both of whom were bit players in last year’s gubernatorial race. A small percentage of absentee ballots sent overseas were not issued by the federal deadline.

The Secretary says Vermont could face a court-ordered primary date change if the Department of Justice decides that the state has not allowed enough time for the dispersal of overseas ballots between the primary and General Election. Last fall, the department sued the secretary’s office over several hundred ballots that were delivered late. The case was resolved very quickly, but Condos says concerns remain about meeting deadlines in future elections. New York state, he said, was forced to move its primary to June as a result of difficulty meeting federal deadlines in 2010 and 2012.

But senators had no interest in cutting Condos any slack in the next election cycle. If anything, several said, they’d rather move it back to a post-Labor Day date. (The primary schedule was advanced in 2010.) They argued over the course of a two-hour debate that moving the primary up again would depress turnout because it would occur in the middle of the school summer vacation. In addition, they were unhappy with the petition deadlines which would have fallen before the end of the legislative session, in early May. This state of affairs, they said, could have an impact on the crucial final weeks of the session when many lawmakers would feel ambivalent about launching campaigns and could prevent challengers, as a result of ambiguity about who is running, from filing petitions.

Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, argued against the primary date change. As Vermont increasingly becomes a “one-party” state, he said, the primary election is becoming the “most important” election and it should be held when there is an opportunity for better participation from the electorate, i.e., after the summer vacation season.

“If I was Secretary of State I would want as much time as possible,” Galbraith said. “But it’s in the interest of Vermonters and the General Assembly to have the largest possible participation.”

S.86 also requires town clerks to submit unofficial election results to the Secretary of State’s Office immediately after ballots have been tabulated by phone or fax. This move would enable the office to more quickly generate tallies; in the last election, Condos was frustrated by his inability to get real-time results from municipalities.

New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all hold primaries after Labor Day, and senators questioned how Vermonts New England neighbors, which have larger populations, maintain later primaries. Condos speculated that the three states separate national ballot counts from local counts, and said he’d look into it.

The legislation does not address lobbyist disclosure rules; White told her fellow lawmakers her committee would take up the issue next year.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. Chuck Lacy :

    I wonder if we can squeeze the other end of the balloon by making changes to reduce the need for re-counts and to compress the time needed when re-counts are conducted.

    The process is leisurely. Could re-counts be planned, staffed, scheduled in advance and then called off when not required? Should re-counts be done automatically starting the next day for all close races just to make sure of the result and to speed the process?

    The Shumlin/Racine primary recount DID NOT START until two weeks after primary election day. That is absurd. Have the recount ready to go in advance and then call it off when you don’t need it (expect to move the ballots and machines to the courthouses, have the party volunteers picked and ready, have the meeting with the judge scheduled, etc.). Why do we act surprised and burdened when a candidate calls for a re-count?

    Once the Shumlin/Racine recount was organized it was completed in a few days. Let’s organize in advance!!!

    And what the heck has to be done to make sure re-counts aren’t necessary? Counting votes is much less complicated than other data collection and distribution exercises that happen routinely in Vermont without re-counts, such as bank statements, phone bills, etc. This is counting and addition.

    Can each voting district be graded by the Sec of State on its accuracy when re-counts are done so as to add some element of accountability and process evaluation? I have no idea whether my town is good at counting and adding votes compared with standards and whether improvement is necessary. I know the people are nice but that’s it.

    Moving the primary to a date after Labor Day seems to be worth some effort in process. A larger turnout give us more representative government. Adding more time to accomodate leisurely systems is a bad habit. Getting this right reduces cynicism.

  2. John Odum :

    Chuck – I hear what you’re saying, but simply piling on more work to the Secretary of State’s office is not the answer. I can tell you they are maxed out as it is, working a lot of overtime and on weekends to meet the demands of the current schedule and the current law. John Campbell’s casual suggestion quoted in the Free Press that the SoS staff will just have to work more overtime is, at best, uninformed – but is certainly inappropriately dismissive and unrealistic. In any case, accusing the SoS and the local clerks around the state of trying to protect a “leisurely” system is… well, both inaccurate and hard not to hear as an insult. A lot of work goes into getting these elections right, I can attest to that as a rookie City Clerk myself.

    This vote is bad public policy for a number of reasons. First and most obvious is the fact that there simply isn’t enough of a margin for error to meet federal deadlines in the case of a recount – that’s self-evident from recent history. Senator White’s contention that there wasn’t persuasive evidence to warrant a change is… well, weird. We aren’t talking about hypotheticals anymore… the current situation created actual, tangible problems last year.

    Just saying “well, the SoS should do better” is equally weird. Lawmakers are supposed to be more thoughtful than that. If the problem is systemic, it needs a systemic fix. At the very least, the current calendar opens the door for mischievous , even frivolous lawsuits targeted at the Sec of State which will waster more time, effort and money.

    As to Senator Galbraith’s concerns about participation, they also ring hollow in an odd way. Given that the primary can and will not be moved back to a later point in a year (as doing so would throw out even the pretense of following federal election law), the reality is that more families squeeze in their last summer holiday at the end of August, rather than the beginning.

    The reality is that, historically, the shorter the period between the primary and the general, the more guarantee an incumbent has to be re-elected if he or she is facing a challenger from a contested primary. That is an enormous part of the reason that Vermont so rarely votes out incumbents – and virtually never does on the statewide level. If a potential challenger is spending their time and energy working against an opponent in their own party, its an uphill climb as it is (certainly as it was under the old primary date) to turn on a dime and mobilize to create broader name recognition – let alone time to make a cogent argument for his or her election.

    So I would counter your concerns about cynicism generated by an earlier primary date (concerns which I think are tremendously overstated) with far more dangerous concerns about cynicism created by a calendar that so consistently and dramatically favors incumbent officeholders, rather than making the playing field as even as possible.

    • Eric Rosenbloom :

      The reality of summer vacations is actually that schools now generally cut them off in the last week of August. So families are indeed more likely to be home.

  3. Chuck Lacy :

    John,

    I speculate with good preparation the Sec of State workload should not change all that much.

    A good amount of the two week delay in the recount involves the party’s recruiting volunteers to count the ballots. Why not require party’s conducting primaries have volunteers selected and ready to go before election day?

    Why is there a hearing with a judge a week AFTER the election to determine the schedule of a recount? Why can’t the schedule be established before the election while the waters are calm? Why is getting the ballots and the machines to the courthouses a fire drill? Can’t we plan to move them after the election and then call it off when there is no recount?

    Our strategy for plowing roads is to assume it is going to snow. We know who the drivers are before it snows. We put the plows on the truck before it snows. We buy diesel before it snows. We buy stock sand and salt before it snows. I dare plowing is easier when you are are ready and plan ahead. Wouldn’t the same be true for recounts?

    But in the case of recounts, we don’t identity the people doing the counting in advance, we don’t train them in advance, they aren’t scheduled in advance, and so on. That is a leisurely approach, no?

  4. John Odum :

    Chuck – that’s still a “crisis management” approach to recounts, as opposed to a “fault tolerance” approach that builds in a realistic timetable into the system. There is only so much control we can have over the parties and their volunteer infrastructure (if they even have a volunteer infrastructure… parties can sometimes fall into disorganization).

    Crisis management is what you fall back on when something doesn’t work – we should plan a system that we expect WILL work as efficiently, reliably and cost-effectively as possible… not to mention that fits within the expectations of federal election law. If we don’t take care of that last bit, we may find it taken care of for us. I believe New York had their primary moved into June by the courts, unless I’m mistaken.

  5. dale tillotson :

    Cannot start a recount the next day because the count is not official for several days following the original election. Chuck you should know that, your informed but I guess you missed that part of it. Furthermore the people needing these overseas ballots etc. are greatly in part serving our country and deserve the proper time to be able to stay informed and get their ballots in a timely manner so they may participate.
    I often have been at odds with the policies of Jim Condos in his service as a Senator and often questioned what was happening while he was a SB councilor, even though not living in SB, just being neighborly in Burlington, but I have to agree with Jim Condos here extra time is fair for all.

  6. Annette Smith :

    My observations as a participant in the last recount is that there were numerous problems that contributed to that circumstance. The ability of parties to recruit volunteers for the recount was not one of them. All the parties stepped up to provide volunteers, and I recruited more than 70 people in all counties over a weekend. From that perspective, participatory democracy is alive and well in Vermont.

    The vote certification process gives town clerks time to get their results to the SOS office, which I understand works over the weekend to get to the point of finalizing the results the following week. One of the errors that led to last year’s recount was in how the town clerk’s results were reported to the SOS, including poor quality fax. The major error occurred in the SOS office when someone entered the wrong data, which was reported correctly by the town clerk. Votes were not counted if the oval was not colored in, though they should have been counted.

    When it came to the recount, some of the town clerks were new and had never been involved in a recount, and the court clerk was new. In Rutland County, the last clerk who had been through a recount came in to advise. I observed everyone working hard to complete the recount in as efficient a manner possible. The two court hearings were sufficient to establish the ground rules and report out the results.

    I agree that there is not enough time to complete the process under the current time frames, and I am not sure that trying to speed up the process for the recount is good for our democracy. Use scanners instead of fax; that would help. Double check data entry. I do remember observing about the election date, “if you were trying to assure the lowest voter participation possible, you would schedule it the last week of August when most voting Vermonters are on vacation.” I am guessing that moving it one week forward or back would increase voter participation.

  7. Eric Rosenbloom :

    Why are there primaries at all? What is the purpose of the parties if not to field their (not the public’s) choices of candidates? If they don’t want to take the risk, or insist on the act of endorsement by the voters, then field all the candidates in the general election, with an instant runoff system.

    The primary system seems to be mainly a process to eliminate the less well-connected/funded, a process to protect power rather than give it to the people.

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